How not to study

Be gentle: I’m about to confess something terrible.

It took me two whole terms of the school year to realize that ‘assessment week’ meant ‘exams’.


My eldest son is in Grade 5. This is his first year of ‘assessments’ (exams) and it’s been a learning curve for both of us.

The most interesting finding has been that he has no idea how to study for exams. None. Clueless. Not that he’s not a bright kid. But put a few pages of notes in front of him and he has no idea what to do with them other than read through them really quickly so that he can get to the soccer-playing part of the day.

Take for example the evening he was trying to learn trappe van vergelyking. After testing him verbally, I realised he needed a bit more time to study. I gave the book back to him and upon reading through the lists out loud, he handed it back to me. I suggested reading the lists and then testing himself by covering all but the first column with a piece of paper. Surprised, he declared this a ‘very good idea!’

Ok. Apparently we’re not born with study skills. Some serious intervention is necessary here. I conducted a bit of research on how to study and found that the issue isn’t as simple as it seems.

Is study theory right?

A model of learning styles was first developed in the 1980s and identified visual and verbal, sensory and intuitive, active and reflective and sequential and global learning styles. According to the proponents of this model, knowing your learning style helps you choose a study method that suits you.

But according to a recent study quoted in the New York Times, there is little evidence that learning styles affect what you retain when you’re studying:

‘The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

The New York Times article, entitled ‘Forget what you know about good study habits’, debunks several theories on learning. For example, the advice given by Absa to choose only one environment in which to study has now been disproved. The brain apparently creates associations between the environment and the information being studied. When the learner changes locations while studying, the information is enriched, causing it to be retained for longer.

Trying to concentrate on one problem – intensive immersion- rather than varying the problems you work on is now also not advised. The results of a study of two groups of learners, one that concentrated on a particular type of problem and the other that varied the content studied, showed that the latter group did twice as well as the former in a test.

Most interestingly, it’s been found that testing is the best way of retaining information. ‘The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future…Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it.’

The article warns that one shouldn’t throw out all the commonly-held beliefs about studying, but that they should be evaluated properly before being applied.

What this means for me and my son, I suppose, is that we’re going to have to adopt a trial-and-error approach to his studies and eventually arrive at a method that works for him.

How to study

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24